Venezuelans turn city buses into newsrooms in order to fight disinformation

By Lillian Michel

“Good morning. This is the El Bus TV newscast, we’ve come to bring you these headlines.”

What sounds like the start of the five o’clock evening news is surprising Venezuelans in the least expected of places — the city bus.

El Bus TV is a new initiative launched by a group of journalists, artists, audiovisual producers and other professionals who read newscasts directly to riders on city buses. The group was formed in Caracas by Claudia Lizardo and Laura Helena Castillo with the aim of playing a small role in the fight against misinformation amid increasing censorship in Venezuela.

“In an environment of gradual control over the media, taking the news to the people, directly on buses, is an effort — albeit a small one, of course — that attempts to rescue the value of journalism,” Castillo told the Knight Center.

The idea initially came to Lizardo when she and Nicolás Manzano, another Bus TV team member, boarded a bus coming back from a protest and felt as if they stepped into an alternate reality where people were unaware anything was happening.

Digital and social media have played key roles in covering the ongoing political crisis and now-daily protests against President Nicólas Maduro. In recent years, many journalists who were unable to report critically at traditional outlets left and started independent digital media sites.

However, although Venezuela has an internet penetration rate of 62 percent, more than one third of the country still depends on traditional media outlets — print, television and radio — for news.

“The majority of these outlets are owned or influenced by the state, and it’s evident in the news they decide to share,” Lizardo said. “Being read the news in person is really important for this sector of the population [with no internet access] and critical for eliminating disinformation.”

The group took its first trip on May 27 and has delivered over 40 newscasts in Caracas since then. Each reading lasts less than three minutes and features briefs aggregated from news sites or official statements, covering a variety of topics including politics, the economy and sports.

First, the producer boards the bus and explains to the driver that they plan to say a few words and pay their fare at the end of the ride. Then the team —usually four or five people— comes on board. There’s an anchor, two people to record video with their phones for social media and someone to hold up the group’s signature prop, a cardboard television screen. When everyone is positioned, they get straight to the news.

“[The reaction has been] extremely positive,” Lizardo said. “The people have received the information they were presented with gratitude.”

“It sounds a little silly to say it, but after nearly every newscast, they applaud us at the end,” Castillo said, counting only five people who have made critical remarks. “It’s something we could have never imagined … About half the drivers end up not charging us.”

Sites like The New York Times and El País have called El Bus TV a creative protest, but the founders deny that what they are doing — delivering the news — is a protest.

“Although El Bus TV was started amid protests, it’s not a form of protest. It’s a newscast,” Castillo said. “We don’t promote marches, we don’t use slogans, we don’t wear any clothing affiliated with a political party, we don’t accept donations.”

Less than a month after their first ride, journalists in other cities have already reached out to the Caracas group wanting to replicate their project. There are now El Bus TV teams in the states of Anzoátegui, Barinas and Carabobo.

The decision to start a team in Barinas was bold. It’s the birth state of former president Hugo Chávez, and Chávez’s brother, Adán, currently serves as governor. Chávez had a confrontational relationship with the private media and his more aggressive supporters are known to harass journalists.

“From the beginning, we recognized the apathy among the people of Barinas and we used this as motivation to take on the challenge that El Bus TV represents for us,” the Barinas team wrote in an email to the Knight Center. The reaction in Barinas has been mixed, according to the team. Most riders show timid interest or indifference, but there are people who clearly disagree with what is being read, like, in the worst case, one rider who repeatedly interrupted the newscast.

The team recalled feeling uncertain about how listeners would respond before their first ride. “The heavy presence of security forces throughout most of the state made us feel insecure to the point we felt like we were doing something illegal, when really we were exercising what is our right,” the team said.

Castillo said the teams worry not only for their personal safety, but for the security of the project. They always travel in groups and ride private buses instead of the public metro to avoid any possible confrontation with the state.

They recently expanded the Caracas team so that El Bus TV can eventually operate daily. The original group was only able to venture out a couple days a week because all the members have other jobs.

“We want El Bus TV to grow and to last,” Castillo said. “[We don’t want] to be left without gas at the beginning of the journey.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.